Only one debate in MN-8, but stark differences show

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

At long last Taconite, Minnesota’s entrance sign rings true: Northern Minnesota is once again “hub of the nation.”

Minnesota’s “Fightin’” Eighth Congressional District is one of just a few in the country in which the outcome is not 99 percent assured. Yet despite several million advertising dollars scorched on behalf of Democratic incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican challenger Stewart Mills, only one actual debate between them was scheduled this fall.

Fortunately, last Tuesday’s debate in Duluth between Nolan, Mills, and Green Party challenger Skip Sandman provided stark contrast, even if it was held at 8 a.m. and viewed mostly by campaign plants and reporters.

Entering the debate, Congressman Nolan probably had the toughest task. He was going head-to-head with a well-funded Republican who had been working over his right flank, all while the Quixotic Sandman was poised to pull votes from his left. A national publication had declared Mills “the Republican Brad Pitt,” so the challenger needed to show some depth. Sandman needed to prove he was a viable alternative to the deep-pocketed front runners.

Before the debate, most pundits wondered how Nolan, Mills and Sandman would handle the controversial nonferrous mining issue. Each of the candidates stuck closely to their previous and well-established positions. Sandman is the only candidate outright opposed to nonferrous mining, citing the environmental risk. (NOTE: Sandman’s role in this campaign caught the attention of Kristina Peterson on the Wall Street Journal blog this week). Meantime, Nolan and Mills both support projects like PolyMet, though Mills continues to use the GOP strategy of claiming Nolan and the DFL have allowed the environmental process to drag on too long.

Much has been made about the delays in this project. What’s often missed is that PolyMet’s permitting woes stem not only to this regulatory process, but to the company as well. Four of those years were spent on an insufficient EIS that failed to explore many of the riskiest aspects of the proposal. The rest has been a methodical slog through annoying but objectively necessary legal hoops. The two year term of former GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack is evidence enough: Congress has little control over this process. The onus is on the company to show it has the funding and plan to mine responsibly. (Note, I said “show,” not “say”).

In any event, it feels recent weeks have brought a silent but palpable change to how people talk about this controversy. No one wants to scream about it anymore. We want answers. Is this real, or not real? That can’t be answered in a sound bite. Still, Sandman, Nolan and Mills do represent the political spectrum of attitudes on this issue.

One of the debate’s most amusing quotes came from Rep. Nolan. In the discussion of environmental regulation, Nolan reminded viewers that before the clean water initiatives of the 1970s, the Mississippi River and other Minnesota waters were, frankly, polluted.

“You’d go down there in the spring and there was toilet paper and condoms and turds hanging on every branch, and that was the good stuff — that wasn’t the toxic material,” said Nolan, who explained that a combination of technology and effort allowed the state to protect its environment without stopping job growth.

The line got laughs from Nolan’s opponent and most in attendance. It also allowed newspaper writers like me write the word “turd” in a family newspaper. It’s OK. The Congressman said it, not me.

The candidates spent at least as much time on guns as they did on mining. Mills made much of his recent endorsement from the National Rifle Association, which has many members and supporters in Northern Minnesota. Nolan, said MIlls, got an “F” from the NRA. The NRA, said Nolan, is more driven by selling guns (in stores like the ones owned by Mills’ family) than it is about protecting gun owners.

“I don’t need a semi-automatic rifle to shoot a duck,” said Nolan to Mills. “Maybe you do. Maybe you should spend more time on your shooting range.”

But is Northern Minnesota really all about guns and mines, nothing more? Most of us understand that’s simply not the case. In this, the debate took its most intriguing and ultimately frustrating turn.

The conversation about taxes and the economy included an exchange about the state of Northern Minnesota’s economy. Mills pointed out that despite improving employment in Minnesota, our region’s economy still trails the state’s urban centers.

You can’t ignore the fact that our economy on the Iron Range isn’t firing on all cylinders. Despite pockets of good news, one only needs to look left and look right on a long drive along Highway 169 to see the objective truth. When Mills said we need to do something about this, he’s right.

The disappointment, however, happened in the discussion of solutions. Nolan kept a protectionist tone, advancing the old DFL idea of “defending” American jobs. Mills said that fast-tracking projects like the Sandpiper pipeline will create the jobs needed to right our direction. Both responses left me wanting.

Pipelines are important infrastructure, but they transport wealth across our region, leaving little behind. New mining has a bigger local economic impact, but that too leaves only a small fraction of the wealth in our hands. For Northern Minnesota to enjoy the same success found in Duluth, the Twin Cities or other prosperous parts of the country, we must generate wealth from within, using our own ideas and attracting talent to bring in new thinking.

(NOTE: To view the debate for yourself, see the archived video here).

When will our political debate in Northern Minnesota finally begin to address our most serious problem: the failure to modernize and diversify our economy? It would appear this is an issue you and I must take up long before our Congressional candidates ever will.

In the end, each candidate accomplished something. Sandman was the earnest alternative, though sometimes dazed by the spotlight. Mills was the crisp conservative critic of the incumbent, well-prepared if a little over-rehearsed. Nolan was the feisty, folksy fighter a few years past his prime.

Considering the daunting challenge the debate posed to Nolan, and in light of a recent poll showing an unexpectedly big Nolan lead, one has to think the incumbent is breathing a little easier entering the campaign’s final weeks.

Still, as Taconite’s sign says, we are the hub of the nation, and we all know the hub spins faster than the rest. What happens on Election Day will be wholly determined by who shows up to vote.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. A great place to start when you ask: “When will our political debate in Northern Minnesota finally begin to address our most serious problem: the failure to modernize and diversify our economy?” is with Tony Sertich and his DFL cronies.

    They’re in charge of the IRRRB which has been around for 72 years and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of our money to address exactly that issue. Ask Tony – “Why have you failed to do your job?”

    Maybe, just maybe, the citizens will see the light and fire these guys for their evil incompetence and put some folks in charge who’ll get the job done. 72 years is long enough!!

  2. Every single mail day, we receive a big piece of campaign literature from groups supporting Mills or Nolan. (Seems like more are for Mills, but we haven’t kept them or counted.) They all say pretty much the same thing.

    Each day we wonder, “Geez … if all the money spent on sending this out was instead spent on local schools … each high school kid in the district could probably take an actual field trip to Washington D.C. to see the White House, Congress, all the monuments, etc.”

    We wonder if at least local printers are paid to make all the brochures.

    Besides for that, seems sort of sad that so many financial resources are spent in this way.

  3. Aaron…Your silence is deafening on just how much good the IRRRB and your buddy Anzelc has done to “modernize and diversify” the Range economy over the past 72 years under DFL control. With the money they’ve spent on Excelsior Energy alone, what $50 million?, they could have run fiber ( your pet project) to every deer camp in Balsam as stated in the recent RedStar opinion page.

    I sense you’re not looking for any real solutions but simply pontificating. Then you’ll headline another social topic…and then move on…and then another, and another, and another.

    • You don’t get a private endless argument after each post, Robert. I’ve written so much about the agency and reform that you should have no trouble finding out what I think.

  4. As expected, that’s it..As Pilot did, “you wash your hands of it and refuse to condemn” and simply say “let’s move on”.

    Think though Aaron, think. For 72 years the DFL has had the power to “modernize and diversify” the Range with oodles of money and yet today, 72 years later, as you yourself state it’s STILL a serious problem. Isn’t it time for change? Give your kids a fighting chance for God’s sake!

    I’d like to simply say, “I give up”, but the sisu in me won’t let go.

    • OK, Bobby, I’ll bite, but just one. You go ahead and type some condescending bullshit when I’m done, but I’ll give you one. The last 72 years have brought many political actions to the Iron Range, some of which are responsible for saving this region. The Taconite Amendment. The Taconite Tax Relief Area and funding for schools. Without these DFL-led activities we’d be in far worse shape. In fact, Iron Range students coming up in the ’60s and ’70s had arguably one of the best educations and supportive communities that an American kid could get. (You remember those decades, don’t you Bobby?) So I reject the breadth of your assertion.

      What we’re talking about is what happened when the early ’80s happened. Much of that was outside the control of one party or another. The iron industry was inefficient. People had gotten fat and happy on the aforementioned good times. And yes, single-party rule did not encourage adaptation to changes. But part of the issue was the way the generational divide ran up against our politics, culture and the changing technology and economic conditions of the century. We stopped the bleeding, but the damage was done.

      So, I’ve complained about the waste at the IRRRB and the failures, the lack of new ideas from many (not all) existing leaders. I’ve not spared the local DFL from these criticisms. So why don’t I throw the bums out for the new Republican paradise? In short: your party is not capable of leading, and doesn’t actually care about the Iron Range for anything more than ore, spoils and votes. Republican legislators would let the GOP gut the agency, strip the production tax language and divert money to the state budget (like they do in Kentucky) so they can shore up their suburban constituencies. I know this because this is what they’ve tried to do every time they’ve had the majority in the last ten years. Would Republicans lead on rural broadband? No, they don’t want to. Would Republicans invest the mining revenue into modern economies and quality of life in communities, instead of consultants and grab bags of cash? No, they’d hire different consultants and give the grab bags to different people.

      If there is a Republican on the Iron Range who wants to lead this area into a 21st century diversified economy, that isn’t reliant on mining and adapts broadband and tech solutions, that includes K-14 and tech education and higher completion of bachelor’s degrees — if this unicorn exists, have him or her call me. I’m interested.

  5. Actually, there was a forum scheduled by the MN Transportation Alliance and Ray Sandman was the only candidate from CD 8 who showed. Cloquet also scheduled a forum for Oct. 10th but Nolan said he was unavailable. Another scheduled forum is on the 22nd and is the Brainerd Environmental Forum to be held in Brainerd at the Northland Arboretum. Mora also has a forum scheduled on the 27th, so it will be interesting to see who actually cares enough about letting the people of the 8th district see first hand where the issues stand with each candidate. One forum is not enough and we all have the right to make a well informed choice. Word has it, there is also a KTLF radio debate coming up soon.

  6. Timothy Zaius says

    “Would Republicans lead on rural broadband? No, they don’t want to. ”

    Far from it , they may well (OK , most probably) view net neutrality as being anti-business and argue that telecom providers , were it adopted, would face huge disincentive to make infrastructure investments into markets of marginal growth .

    Would be interesting to hear candidates feild this one from a debate moderator .

  7. That’s a lot of words Aaron, without addressing the issue. Let me repeat:

    72 years ago the IRRRB was founded for the express propose to modernize and diversify the Iron Range economy, a serious issue. 72 years later, after 100’s of millions of taxpayer’s money has been spent by the IRRRB, you rightfully state a most serious issue still facing the Iron Range today is to modernize and diversify the economy. How much more taxpayer money will be wasted and how many more “72 years” does the DFL need to get it right? This is insanity!!

    We’re fortunate to have a resource like the IRRRB but for goodness sake, put some people in charge who know how to create an attractive competitive environment, start businesses, develop the right infrastructure…resulting in good paying jobs.

  8. Joe Soucheray has joined in on our discussion..

    “Bumpkins that we are, we folks — folks being the operative word for people if you are left of the political dial — sure are getting fed great big heaping portions of the old class-warfare manure. Up in the 8th Congressional District, Rick Nolan, who must really be short of material, apparently is fascinated that his opponent, Stewart Mills, wears his hair long, as though long hair is another indication of suspect wealth.

    If you are of Nolan’s mind, all wealth is suspect because that plays well with the uninformed.
    It’s to the point of comedy that the national Democratic Party has raced to Minnesota to help Nolan out with television ads that feature yachts and private airplanes and white sand beaches. I guess the voter is supposed to believe that Mills sits around all day and has grapes fed to him as he pages through the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog pining for a new Maserati Ghibli S Q4.

    Mills is a 42-year-old married father of five who lives in Brainerd and works for the family business, Mills Fleet Farm. They employ 6,000 people at 34 stores.

    I don’t recall anybody getting particularly upset that Mark Dayton is the scion of a large drygoods enterprise or that, to this day, we are not sure how much money he has or where he keeps it to shield it from the tax man.

    It certainly takes some cheek to look the voters in the eye and condemn a guy whose family built a Minnesota company that has done nothing but provide jobs for people. Hey, Nolan, you’re talking about the man’s mall, Fleet Farm. Nolan’s house and garage are probably full of Fleet Farm products.

    That’s another thing that is so tiresome in the class-warfare nonsense. You’ve got this faction of Americans who love to demonize corporations, and then they go home after the protest to all the amenities that corporations have produced: cars, refrigerators, computers, air conditioning, medicines.

    And do we really believe that a guy like Mills wants to be in Congress for the sole purpose of giving tax breaks to billionaires? If we can’t embrace the idea that somebody wants to run for office because they truly believe they should, for the good of the country, then this country is in even more serious trouble than we think”.

  9. Ranger, such a loyal, unquestioning fan of corporations. How many millions of American jobs making all those products have been outsourced out of the US? Income inequality is nonsense? Standard and Poors disagrees as reported in WSJ, IBT and many other places that income inequality is really hurting state economies. 2/3 of largest retail corporations say income inequality is hurting business finally acknowledging that 98% of Americans don’t have the incomes to spend like they used to.

    Consumers are the real job creators.

  10. George Carlin comes to mind when reading your post kissa – ‘Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.’

  11. Aside from you resorting to insults when you can’t think what to say, I am quite amused by you quoting George Carlin. Did you really miss his famous rant on the American Dream?

  12. Independent says

    New polls look bad for Nolan. I don’t think his half hearted support/opposition to the new generation of copper and precious metals mining companies looking to directly and indirectly employ thousands of people is a smart move. Remember when the L in DFL used to stand for Labor…

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